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National Research Council (US) Chemical Sciences Roundtable. Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences: Issues for the 21st Century: Report of a Workshop. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2000.

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Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences: Issues for the 21st Century: Report of a Workshop.

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9The Making of a Chemist: My Adventures in Graduate School

Jonathan L. Bundy

University of Maryland, College Park

As I look back on my experiences in graduate school, I think that they can truly be characterized as an adventure. My experiences have been somewhat atypical. After obtaining an undergraduate degree, I spent time in a master's program at a small liberal arts college. I was fortunate to work with an excellent mentor, who ignited my interest in mass spectrometry. Unfortunately, I had to abandon my research when my mentor's funding was cut off; my graduate program had no alternative funds available. I then had the good fortune to be able to transfer immediately to a Ph.D. program and work with one of the experts in my field. All was not settled, however, because a year later my mentor decided to move our laboratory, a daunting task in itself. On the whole, everything has worked out fortunately for me. Many graduate students, however, have bad experiences in graduate school that profoundly affect their future professional directions. If we are to better serve those who choose to pursue advanced study in chemistry, there are some issues that we must consider and some changes that must be made.

I am of the opinion that reform of the undergraduate experience is the most important thing that can be done to improve graduate education in chemistry. Obviously, a student who has an unsatisfactory experience as an undergraduate is more likely to have a bad outcome at the graduate level. There are three major areas that I think are deserving of attention at the undergraduate level—research experience, advising and mentoring, and ensuring that students have an adequate foundation in the basics.

It is fundamentally important that all undergraduates have a meaningful experience in a research setting. It is important to stress the word “meaningful” in the last statement; this should be work on a project at the bench, not just menial technical tasks or literature searching. When I was an undergraduate, experience in a research setting was a requirement for graduation. At many institutions, only the so-called “best and brightest” are given the chance to work in a research lab. If we want to increase the number of domestic students choosing to pursue graduate study, this must change so that these opportunities are open to all. Research is, after all, the cornerstone of one's career in graduate study. Those who have no experience in a research setting are more likely, in my opinion, to have a bad experience in graduate school.

Much has already been said at this workshop about the need for good advising and mentoring. I strongly agree. In the beginning, if we are to ensure an adequate supply of graduate students in the chemical sciences, we need to increase the number of students majoring in these subjects at the undergraduate level. This leads back to the need for quality instruction at the secondary school level, which often is sorely lacking. We need to make sure that those who are teaching science at this level have an adequate education in their subject area so that our youth have a positive image of science. In our colleges and universities, we need to promote the advising of undergraduates as a task to be taken seriously by faculty. Advisors need to take an active role so that their advisees are adequately informed about graduate study.

We must also be sure that those we send to graduate school are adequately prepared for the rigors of graduate study. This includes education in the basics of work in the lab. All too often I have seen new graduate students who cannot properly prepare a solution, or worse yet, do a simple mole conversion! Undergraduate laboratory instruction should stress these basic skills at all levels. The use of “open-ended” laboratory experiences, which have recently come into vogue, should also improve the preparation of students for graduate work. After all, in a research laboratory, there is no lab manual that will magically produce results if diligently followed.

Once students get to graduate school, one of the initial experiences that they usually have is being put in charge of several undergraduate laboratory sections as a teaching assistant (TA), often with minimal training. Unlike the humanities and social sciences, graduate students usually are not given the opportunity to lead a lecture class. TA experience in laboratories often does not provide adequate preparation of those who ultimately may want to pursue a career as a faculty member at an undergraduate institution. For those who want these experiences, we should provide avenues to obtain them, such as “teaching fellow” or “faculty apprentice” programs.

Another issue is the situation at larger institutions where a large number of TAs are required to support the large enrollment in undergraduate chemistry courses. There is an impression in the chemical community that the pressure to staff lab sections may lower the standards for admission to a graduate program. This obviously is a disservice to both the undergraduates receiving instruction from a less-than-adequately prepared TA and to the graduate students who may not adequately be prepared for graduate school. For those institutions requiring a large amount of TA labor, alternative sources of teaching assistants should be pursued, such as retired chemists (or science teachers) and recent college graduates desiring a break before going to graduate school.

As I have mentioned before, the cornerstone of one's experience in graduate school is research. There has been some discussion as to sources of funding for students actively pursuing research. Traditionally, this has been through research assistantship funds directly awarded to faculty members through grants. A younger, less-established faculty member often does not have sufficient funding to directly support students, forcing them to work as a TA beyond the required period. An alternative idea is to give fellowship money directly to students, as is often done in the biomedical sciences. I think this is an excellent idea. It might enable younger, less-established faculty to be able to attract better students instead of choosing from the “bottom of the barrel.” In addition, students would be able to make the critical choice of advisor without having to place funding as high on the list, as many students often do. Industrial partnerships also are an alternative source for funding graduate students, and I think an excellent one for those who are definitely set on a specific industrial career. However, they seem to be a “flavor of the month” as of late. It is important that these programs do not sacrifice the integrity of graduate training for industrial interests. With the diverse job prospects for those trained in the chemical sciences today, students who are planning on a nonacademic career can still receive adequate training in a nonindustrial graduate program.

The relationship between a student and advisor is also important. Often students feel that they are just a cheap source of labor for their advisor to exploit as needed. It is critical for a student's professional development to be involved in decision making as to the direction of his or her research, instead of being treated as a glorified technician. This brings up the issue of how long is long enough for the completion of a Ph.D. I think it should be of a sufficient period to allow a student to provide a significant contribution to their particular field of the chemical sciences. Although it may be tempting to “squeeze” one more compound or paper out of a student, advisors must be careful not to exploit students by extending their program beyond a reasonable time.

To conclude, I feel that our system of making chemists is an excellent one overall. After all, our graduate programs are the envy of the world. Several individuals have mentioned at this workshop that we should not fix what is not broken. I think this is an excellent idea. We do however, need to ensure that we have a supply of “raw material” to continue our excellence. The suggestions that I have mentioned concerning education at the undergraduate level need to be heeded if this supply is to be sustained. We also need to ensure that the concerns raised by graduate students are treated seriously and thoughtfully, so that the majority of those who pursue graduate study in the chemical sciences graduate from their programs with the impression that getting an advanced degree was worth it.

Copyright © 2000, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK44892


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